"For so many people I know, including myself, music ends up becoming a background thing," the 41-year-old says. "When I was working on this album, I suddenly felt so lucky that after I put my daughter to bed I could go into another room and create music. It put me in the best mood ever."
Being in the right mood has been the guiding principle of Hayden's career, since making a lasting impression with 1995's Everything I Long For. From then on, fans had to get used to long stretches between albums — Us Alone comes almost four years after his last release, The Place Where We Lived — although those silent periods helped cultivate an undeniable mystique, whether intentional or not.
Along with deepening his reflections on the past, that mystique also accentuates Hayden's vision of the future, especially on closer "Instructions," which lays out a plan to be carried out upon his death. "I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, it runs in my family," he says. "At some point during the writing of most records I've made, I thought I was dying of something. But truthfully, that song was supposed to be a submission for Miranda July's Learning To Love You More website, where one of the assignments was to describe what you want done with your body when you die. But it took me so long that by the time I finished my record, they'd stopped taking submissions." He adds, laughing, "That's really the story of my life."
The extra time in his home studio did pay off in the warm vibes on Us Alone, built largely around piano and organ. Hayden says his goal was to achieve a small combo sound, even though he handled nearly all of the instrumentation himself. "I was kind of getting sick of songs that sounded like street festivals, with 40 instruments on them," he says, perhaps taking a friendly dig at some of his new Arts & Crafts label mates. "So I just recorded all the parts with the idea of it being like five people walking into a room and playing the whole album together."
Hayden is staying true to that concept live, having debuted his new trio in December at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival curated by the National. He admits that one reason why his albums take so long is the challenge of getting back into a creative frame of mind after being on tour. But he suspects that might change, given his new domestic life. "I'm really trying to be more organized with my spare time," he says. "I never used to wake up before 10:30, and now when I think about what I do before 10:30, it's insane."